Some people live to exercise, others embrace their couch. Many know they should exercise, but they struggle with ambivalence. I remember bribing myself to run in college. I really didn’t like it, but I thought it was the best exercise to manage my weight. Today I wake up wondering what I will do to be active almost every day. Recent research reported in the Wall Street Journal begins to explain why people have such different experiences moving their bodies.
BEYOND MOTIVATION AND DISCIPLINE: WHY ISN’T EVERYONE ACTIVE?
Too many people looking to improve their fitness get hurt or demoralized when they push themselves (or someone else pushes them) too hard. What you can do may not meet expectations of what you think you should be doing. In the Wall Street Journal article I was especially taken by the examples mentioned by Iowa State University researchers. There isn’t one right way to exercise, just as there is no single right way to eat. Interestingly I have personal experience with each of the scientist’s observations:
- WORK WITH YOUR BODY: Stories in the popular press seduce readers. People don’t realize how often the stories aren’t true, and the pictures are photo shopped. Years ago I remember our local paper featuring one young actress with her secret diet plan detailed in a sidebar. My jaw dropped. I had been seeing that same actress for months as she struggled with a raging eating disorder. Her food intake didn’t look anything like what she (or the journalist) claimed she was eating. When I asked her about the piece she started crying, knowing that she had lied to protect her privacy. What works for someone else may grab your attention, but what really counts is what works for you.
- CONSIDER WILLINGNESS, READINESS AND ABILITY: Changing any behavior requires all three factors working in concert– and sometimes it is complex. I once worked with a client who wanted to lose weight and take care of his health, but he said exercise gave him the same feeling as a panic attack. He worked with a therapist to tease apart the physical experience of panic and the physical sensation of exertion, hoping to gain some insight–and cultivate a skill set to manage his experience. He stopped working with the trainer because he felt he could never meet her expectations.
- EXERCISE WITH MUSIC TO INCREASE EFFORT: My son is a strong and able cyclist, but that wasn’t always the case. Those early years he struggled to ride with any measure of intensity, as if he was stuck in slow motion. My husband and I are avid cyclists, and we often worried that Noah would never get up to speed. Then he started to listen to music. He’s a drummer and responded readily to the rhythms. We gave him access to i tunes and the rest is history. Today he leaves me in the dust.
- MOVE WITH JOY: I bribed myself to exercise right through my 20’s. I was 31 and teaching four classes, seeing private clients and planning a wedding in six weeks. And I was running–until one day I just stopped. I was exhausted and tired of pushing myself every minute of the day. I remember stopping on the boardwalk in Venice Beach and walking the rest of the way home. Instead of glancing at my watch every few seconds wondering when it would be over, I noticed how invigorated I felt as I gazed at the ocean and the blue sky. I haven’t run for exercise since. But I bike everywhere, enjoy yoga twice a week with friends, swim when I can, hike the local mountains and walk the beach, along with other more recreational “play”.
NO PAIN, NO GAIN IS NOT TRUE
Too many experts identify the best exercise as one that gets heart rate up or burns the most calories or creates great definition. Many trainers still drive clients to “go as long as you can, as hard as you can.” I believe this thinking is exactly why so many people don’t enjoy physical activity. I remind my clients that ever increasing goals work for some, but not for others. You don’t have to keep getting more and more fit to be fit. At some point all that intensity can blur the line between fitness and compulsion.
Too often we celebrate the biggest, the strongest, the fastest and the leanest. We also assume that the most accomplished athlete or the person with the “best body” is ideally suited to helping others get with the program. Maybe we need to stop making such superficial assumptions in fitness, diet, and weight loss arenas. It is easy to tell someone to do what works for yourself. It takes real skill and education to help someone figure out an approach to diet or physical activity that works for them and can be incorporated into their life.
Physical activity allows the body to use both glucose and fat better for fuel. With better metabolic health comes less risk of disease no matter your body size. Exercise allows us to release tension in our muscles and truly restore ourselves. People often sleep better and enjoy better digestive health when they integrate physical activity into their day. It is critical that everyone figures out how to integrate physical activity in their life, not just people who can’t live without it.